Contemporary art show in Saudi Arabia could herald a new movement

Contemporary art show in Saudi Arabia could herald a new movement
But young artists like those included in “We Need to Talk” still face obstacles and government bureaucracy

By Henry Hemming. Web only
Published online: 30 January 2012

Visitors to the opening of “We Need to Talk”

JEDDAH. Usually it is the job of an art historian to pinpoint when an art movement begins. But last month, on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, the overwhelming feeling among visitors to a ground-breaking exhibition of Saudi contemporary art was that they had witnessed the birth of something new. They may well be right.

Organised by Edge of Arabia, an independent arts initiative, “We Need to Talk” (until 18 February) features more than 40 pieces by 22 young Saudi artists, almost half of them women, and includes videos, sculpture and photography from the likes of Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater and Manal Al-Dowayan. Most of these artists have shown together over the past three-and-a-half years in London, Venice, Berlin, Istanbul and Dubai, but never before in Saudi Arabia. Could an exhibition like this have been staged in Jeddah ten years ago? “Of course not,” said the show’s curator Mohammed Hafiz, “because we didn’t have the artists, we didn’t have the works of art… there are many elements.”

One of these elements was a degree of indifference or suspicion displayed back then towards contemporary art. Now, members of the Saudi royal family, including the participating artist, Princess Jowhara Al Saud, as well as legions of young art fans packed the opening. A smattering of non-Saudis were also there, including photographer Wolf­gang Tillmans, Jack Persekian, the former director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai, and the following day Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, took a spin round the show, later describing the artists involved as “true intellectuals with a great eye for form and immanence”.

“It feels like a movement,” said London dealer James Lindon, visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time. “There’s extraordinary solidarity between the artists and a desire to push things forward in an interesting way. I’m incredibly impressed by the quality of the work.” While some pieces explored shared Islamic heritage, such as Ayman Yossri Daydban’s pieces on the Hajj, most focused on elements of contemporary Saudi society, and did so in a way that was immediate, considered, and at times gently provocative.

In Sarah Abu Abdullah’s video, Anees 9999, the artist, dressed in an abaya (a long cloak women in Saudi Arabia must wear in public), covers a wrecked car with pink paint before stepping gingerly into the passenger seat. “I was about to go back to Saudi,” she says of the piece, “so I started to count the things I wouldn’t be able to do… I wouldn’t be able to choose who I would marry, there are few working opportunities, I can’t drive myself to work, I can’t have my own little apartment. I granted myself a simple wish, by pretending to have my own car.”

Nor did she think she could ever display a video like this in Saudi Arabia. Clearly, the times are changing.

Maha Malluh, whose work is currently on show in the British Museum’s “Hajj” exhibition (until 15 April), refers to the religious tapes that appeared in Saudi Arabia during the late 1970s in her piece Food for Thought 7200. The cassettes are laid out in 1970s bread-baking trays and have been positioned to spell words that resonate from the tapes such as “un-religious”, “shame” and “lies”.

What makes the inclusion of pieces like these unusual is that every piece in the show was inspected by a committee of senior artists at the Ministry of Culture and Information and all but one work was approved. Financial support for the exhibition largely came from the private equity company, Abraaj Capital, and Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, the social responsibility wing of the automobile and customer financing corporation. This allowed the show’s organisers to take more risks, not just in terms of the work but the staging. “We Need to Talk” is held in an unfinished, neon-lit wing of Jeddah’s Al Furisiya Marina & Mall—a highly unusual choice for a Saudi exhibition. “I think it’s just right for the work. It was a risk, but one that we felt was worth taking,” said Stephen Stapleton, the founder of Edge of Arabia and the co-curator of “We Need to Talk”.

Like the mall, the Saudi art movement looks set to receive considerable investment in event sponsorship and patronage in the coming years. As well as supporting the exhibition, Christie’s had eight representatives in Jeddah for the opening. Sotheby’s had four. By the end of the year both auction houses will have members of staff based in Saudi Arabia.

“Collectors [here] have the means and the interest,” said Paul Hewitt, the managing director of growth markets, Christie’s, who compared the emerging market in Saudi Arabia to that of Russia and India, adding that patience was key. For Lina Lazaar, a deputy director and international specialist for contemporary art at Sotheby’s, “every single Saudi that I know from my generation has or is about to start collecting contemporary art”.

Nonetheless this fledgling art movement faces some obstacles. There is no fine art college, no contemporary art museum, no dedicated art publication and no surplus of innovative art spaces in Saudi Arabia, with the notable exception of Jeddah’s Athr Gallery.

Saudi bureaucracy is another problem, a theme addressed in the show by several pieces. The Postman, a photograph by Sami Al-Turki, refers to the growing number of young Saudis who prefer to communicate by email rather than risk the state-run postal service, a situation he sees as analogous to what is happening in many Saudi creative fields as young men and women choose to feature their work and communicate by YouTube, Facebook and Twitter rather than through traditional channels. “We Need to Talk” belongs very much to this new tradition.

The fact that this exhibition happened, the extensive coverage it received in the Saudi media, and the prospect of a museum of contemporary art opening in Jeddah within the decade: all of this suggests an underlying shift. In Saudi Arabia today there is a new enthusiasm for art. It is being driven on by an indigenous movement of contemporary art that made its long-awaited arrival on a balmy night in Jeddah.